Ambitious plan for county libraries

Three new facilities would cost around $22.6 million

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A new facilities master plan for the Flathead County Library System calls for the construction of new libraries in Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Bigfork, an investment that would cost roughly $22.6 million.

ImagineIF Libraries Director Kim Crowley highlighted recommendations of the master plan during a joint workshop Thursday with the library and library foundation boards.

Himmel & Wilson Library Consultants embarked on the master-plan study last fall, doing site inspections and poring over data to determine future space needs for the main library and its three branches.

Existing facilities in Bigfork, Columbia Falls and Kalispell are all considerably undersized, are land-locked and lack parking, the facilities report noted.

The consultants based their recommendation for new libraries on a square-footage standard of 0.7 square feet of public library space per capita. The Kalispell library’s service area currently offers .45 square feet per capita, well below the benchmark.

“In 20 years if we do nothing, it would drop to .36 square feet per capita,” Crowley said.

While the boards are exploring various funding alternatives, it could be years before any library construction takes place.

The county’s capital improvement plan had earmarked $16 million for a new Kalispell library in the 2017 fiscal year, along with $4.4 million for a new Columbia Falls library and $2.2 million for a new Bigfork library. Those allocations now have been rolled over to 2020, county Finance Director Sandy Carlson said.

They were bumped to the next five-year capital improvement plan because the commissioners weren’t sure the funding would be available for the plan that extends through 2019, Carlson said.

If funding for library construction were arranged, perhaps through a public-private partnership, the commissioners could reconsider the capital improvement plan.

The facilities report recommends a funding scenario of one-third private money and two-thirds public funding. It also suggested adding a 3 percent inflation factor to the total construction cost for each year beyond 2014.

The facilities master-plan study dovetails with a strategic planning process that’s underway for the library system. A draft of the new strategic plan is on track to be completed by late June, with the final draft going to the Library Board for consideration in July.

The strategic plan is a road map of how ImagineIF Libraries will provide services to meet community needs into the future.

During the workshop, board members also learned about using the New Markets Tax Credit as a way of paying for a portion of the cost of the new libraries. It’s a federal program created under the Community Renewal Tax Act of 2000 to stimulate economic and community development in America’s low-income communities.

Jose Ometeotl of Willdan Financial Services stepped board members through the process of acquiring tax credits. Willdan worked with the city of Kalispell and economic development groups on the Kalispell Core Area Revitalization Plan and the rail-served industrial park off Whitefish Stage Road.

Most of Kalispell’s inner core meets the income criteria for tax credit eligibility.

“If you have a $20 million project, New Markets Tax Credits can bring in $5 million to $6 million in equity,” Ometeotl said. “It’s not a magic bullet, but it helps. It’s a very complicated structure.”

The program makes $3.5 billion in tax credits available annually. The Department of Treasury, through the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund, allocates the tax credits to groups who apply.

The Missoula-based Montana Community Development Corp. this week was notified it will receive $55 million in tax credits for the coming year.

Montana Community Development Corp.’s New Markets Tax Credit Program was established in 2008 and has created partnerships with bankers, businesses and local development organizations throughout the region.

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